It took him half an hour to fall. -Peachy Carnehan, “The Man Who Would Be King”

On June 24, I published Nuristan Province: Conflict, Reconciliation, and Development at Foreign Intrigue that examined the consequences for diminished application of  aid and development resources in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nuristan. This article is a companion piece to “Nuristan Province: Conflict, Reconciliation, and Development.” Where I address issues of development and governance in that article, this work will concentrate on identifying the threats to improved quality of life in Nuristan and focus upon insurgent groups and international terrorist network sponsors that continue to occupy important areas throughout Nuristan Province.

Of particular note to military observers is the recent history of conflict and combat in Nuristan. Of the 10 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded for engagements in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and the war in Afghanistan, five have been for actions in Nuristan. SGT Ryan Pitts is the latest, with his award announced on Monday:

  • June 21, 2006: SFC Jared C. Monti. 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division
  • November 9, 2007: SGT Kyle J. White. 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade
  • July 23, 2008: SGT Ryan Pitts. 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade
  • October 3, 2009: SSG Clinton L. Romesha.  3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division
  • October 3, 2009: SSG Ty M. Carter. 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division

Last August, we published a primer on the province at Foreign Intrigue. In that article, you can find useful links and background information on the history of Nuristan. In “Nuristan Province: Conflict, Reconciliation, and Development,” I noted the decline in application of development projects and aid in Nuristan Province in recent years, addressed an apparent lack of international commitment to development, and assessed the likelihood of increased fundamentalist militancy as a result of reduced commitment to constructing important infrastructure such as medical, educational, and governmental facilities. I explored the dynamic of interoperability between military forces and aid and development organizations in Kunar and Nuristan provinces.

In the article, I concluded:

The likely outcome of reduced commitment to development in Nuristan is the relegation of an entire generation of Afghan children to continued and worsening poverty. The result of this poverty would be a renewed effort by fundamentalist militants operating both in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to co-opt the desperate people of eastern Nuristan, impede the progress of growing governmental legitimacy among the isolated villages of Kamdesh and Barg-i-Matal, and roll back the gains of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in an effort to become the defacto security organization in the region. The result of this degradation in the application of aid and development resources is a significant rise in fundamentalist militancy and the strengthening of an essential network of havens for Al Qaeda as it seeks to rejuvenate its quickly waning international support for anti-Western jihad, held in abeyance in the wake of historical events such as the Arab Spring.

Nuristan is a province in northeastern Afghanistan. Prior to the most recent war in Afghanistan, Nuristan was perhaps best known for being the subject of Rudyard Kipling’s epic tale “The Man Who Would Be King.” Characterized by its craggy, mountainous terrain, the long history of the people who live there is dotted with exceptionally interesting tales of ferocious warriors and a deeply-ingrained mistrust of outsiders.

Nuristan DistrictsCulturally, Nuristanis are ethno-linguistically distinguishable from neighboring Pashtuns and are noted for their fierce fighting history. Nuristan is valued by insurgent leaders for its remote location, its ability to conceal the movement of fighters, and its centralized location to insurgent battlegrounds in Pakistan and Afghanistan. With peaks and ridge lines in excess of 15,000 feet scarring the region, Nuristan buttresses the Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal districts of Chitral and Dir. Nuristan is often referenced in reports as conjoined to its southern neighbor, Kunar Province.

Throughout the duration of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military operations in Kunar and Nuristan provinces, several incidents have solidified the region’s importance in the history of the war in Afghanistan. Wider notoriety for the region has been elicited from a series of high-profile battles throughout the last decade. Events such as the clash chronicled in the movie Lone Survivor, the protracted occupation of the Korengal Valley (popularly represented by Sebastian Junger’s documentary ‘Restrepo’), and the high profile battles waged by ISAF forces in the remote villages of Aranas, Wanat, Tsangar, Gambir, Barg-i-Matal, Ganjgal, and Barawalo Kalay have brought Kunar and Nuristan into the lexicon of military analysts and historians on a level previously reserved for those waged on enemy in Fallujah and Baghdad during the war in Iraq. More specifically, the intrinsic value of Nuristan to insurgents operating throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas and the mountainous badlands of northeastern Afghanistan has become more apparent even with the withdrawal of ISAF forces in recent years.

Incidents such as the mass enemy attacks on ISAF forces in Wanat, the attack on OP Bari Alai in northern Kunar Province, and those during the siege of Barg-i-Matal village during the summer of 2009 brought the capabilities of a coordinated and well-supplied enemy into focus for service personnel and analysts focusing on Nuristan. These battles reflected a tactically experienced enemy with effective command and control, an entrenched support network throughout the valleys and villages, and a command of the terrain and infiltration routes that supported entrenched insurgent nodes spread throughout Kunar and Nuristan provinces.

The Katigal Valley in Barg-i-Matal District, Nuristan Province
The Katigal Valley in Barg-i-Matal District, Nuristan Province

One by one, the massing efforts targeting static ISAF positions eroded political will of strategic-level command to continue the effort to affect the battle space from camps and outposts dotting the jagged outcroppings of the mountainous province. The will to sustain operations at these isolated outposts was most especially destroyed by the near-overrun of Combat Outpost Keating by enemy insurgent forces on October 3, 2009. After nine Americans were killed defending the camp from hundreds of enemy, the camp was destroyed, and the last American positions in eastern Nuristan Province were closed in the fall of 2009.

In the aftermath of the battle in Kamdesh and the re-allocation of United States forces in autumn of 2009, many analysts and observers began noting the significance of the region for transnational and international insurgent and terrorist groups.

Since the pullout of ISAF forces, the battle for Nuristan has pivoted from an aggregated and tacitly coordinated insurgent group effort targeting ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), to a pitched and entrenched battle between the groups for primacy over the valuable havens and routes that sustain important lines of communication between nodes that straddle the Durand line and operate in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Groups such Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG), and Al Qaeda often found common purpose and cooperated with other groups in sustaining attacks that targeted ISAF and ANSF positions during the previous decade of war.

Sofrep 6
Barg-i-Matal Village, Nuristan Province.

However, since ISAF began retrograding the camps and outposts of Kamdesh and Barg-i-Matal districts in late 2009, many of these insurgent groups have begun competing for access to territory that acts as essential haven for travel along vital infiltration routes that sustain insurgency attack efforts throughout Nuristan and Kunar Province to the south. The small and secluded hamlets and villages occupying territory inside these valued districts are often too isolated from ANSF for adequate security.

Nuristan: Of Kipling and American Valor

Read Next: Nuristan: Of Kipling and American Valor

In this, many village leaders have cut deals with insurgent forces in an effort to head-off violence against civilians. As the competition for access to these important areas has heightened among the myriad insurgent groups operating in the area, the differences in purpose of the insurgent groups have fractured the previous relationships between them. This has catalyzed a series of intra-insurgent attacks. Reprisals have followed the attacks, cascading further violent efforts between the groups. These attacks have endangered Nuristani civilians living in places like Kamdesh and Barg-i-Matal, and brought significant spotlight upon the dearth of security in the easternmost districts of the province.

In a Time Magazine article in the spring of 2011, Julius Cavendish outlines insurgent leader strategy for destabilizing Afghanistan as the United States and their North Atlantic Treaty Organization counterparts prepared to turn over large parts of the country in earnest. Appropriately titled “First, Take Nuristan: The Taliban’s New Afghan Plan,” Cavendish lays out the long term strategic objective for the insurgency’s purpose in capturing control of Nuristan:

NATO is quick to point out that the sustained fighting in Nuristan is a testament to the toughness of the Afghan police on the front lines. That is undoubtedly true, but it misses the point that the Taliban attacks are part of a rolling effort to drive the government out of Nuristan altogether. The Taliban has three objectives in mind: to take Nuristan; storm Asadabad, capital of neighboring Kunar province; and undermine NATO’s plans to hand a third territory, Laghman province, over to the Afghan government. (Cavendish, Time Magazine, June 1, 2011)

Nuristan’s strategic importance lies in its isolation. The province’s location, straddling the Durand Line, contains valuable terrain along important facilitation routes from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan to the havens the groups prize throughout Barg-i-Matal and Kamdesh districts in Nuristan.

The havens in Nuristan represent important staging areas by which these insurgent groups can launch attacks at both Kabul and Islamabad. Most recently, reporting has suggested a discernible change in the character of the violent Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies that operate in eastern Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Inter-insurgent attacks, as noted earlier, have noticeably increased in frequency and ferocity. On May 16th, ATN News cited sources stating that international actors had recently begun appearing in larger numbers in Nuristan:

Residents of Kamdesh district in Nuristan province have reported that Pakistani military agents, disguised as Taliban militants are frequenting the area and killing people.

Locals added that these armed groups go around with their faces masked. They have also reportedly abducted a number of locals who refused to participate in attacks against Afghan security forces.

Hafiz Abdul Qayoum Nuristani, Nuristan governor confirmed this and urged the Central Government to pay attention to the problems of Nuristan. (ATN News, May 16)

Just five days later, reports began emerging that a drone strike conducted in Nuristan had killed “…four rebels and wounded two others….”

On June 6, the Afghan news service Khaama Press reported that 12 members of a local Taliban leadership group were summarily executed via hanging in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Khaama’s report stated that members of the Kunar provincial government in Asadabad, to the south of Nuristan, attributed the hangings to members of LeT:

According to local authorities in eastern Kunar province of Afghanistan, at least 12 local Taliban commanders were executed by masked men who are believed to be Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militants.

The officials are saying that the masked militants have recently increased to their insurgency activities in this province and their main target is to kill the local Taliban militants.

Provincial governor, Hafiz Abdul Qayum, said the masked men hanged 12 Taliban commanders after they failed to disrupt the elections earlier in April. (Khaama Press, June 6>)

Recent reports that Al Qaeda is resurgent in eastern Afghanistan largely pivot on Kunar and Nuristan Provinces as haven for the international terrorist group. Reinforcing the assessment that Al Qaeda continues to value Nuristan, reports have continually reflected an escalation in activity in the province for the group. On May 29th, The Daily Beast published an article, written by National Security Writer Eli Lake, that noted reports that indicate a rise in violence and insurgent activity:

Specifically, the concern for now is that al Qaeda has created a haven in the northeast regions of Kunar and Nuristan…recent estimates from the military and the U.S. intelligence community have determined that al Qaeda’s presence has expanded to nearby Nuristan and that the group coordinates its operations and activities with allies like the Pakistan-based Taliban and Haqqani Network. (Lake, The Daily Beast, May 29, 2014)

Lake’s claims are burgeoned by reports that LeT personnel have begun moving into Nuristan in greater numbers. On May 6, ATN News cited statements by Nuristani Provincial Governor Hafiz Abdul Qayoum Nuristani pleading with Kabul to send assistance to battle the onslaught. On June 6, the Wahkt News Agency stated that LeT was actively establishing training camps in the eastern district of Kamdesh. Nuristani provincial leaders continued to call for support in battling the Pakistani terrorist group. Nuristani’s statement is noted for his claim that Pakistanis were involved in attacks against Afghans in Nuristan:

Local officials in eastern Nuristahn said Thursday that Lashkar-e-Tayeba, with active center in Pakistan is was looking to set up terrorist training camps in the province bordered Durand Line.

Over 100 of the group’s militants have been deployed in Nuristan province, where are trying to erect training camps in restive Kamdish district, said provincial governor, Hafiz Abdul Qayum.

He blamed the group for executing anti-Afghan election activities, with foiled eleven Afghan Taliban militants deployment in the province and its neighborhood.

Qayum asked the government for taking immediate actions to prevent activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba militants in the province, where the security forces said that strong military operation will be launched to clear militants of the province. (Hanif Ahmadzai, Wahkt News Agency, June 6)

On June 6, a video appeared in several news sources showing the executions of several Nuristani men, described as “Afghan Taliban.” The video of the executions was released by the Nuristani provincial government and quickly spread around the internet. The video, graphic in nature, depicts the hanging of three individuals by masked men. Each of the hanged has his head placed in a noose before the boards supporting their bodies are kicked out from underneath the group, rendering them to the mercy of the rope.

Initially, media reports stated that the video depicted the execution of Afghan Taliban members who failed to adequately interrupt recent elections. However, the Taliban issued a retort the next day, challenging the original characterization of the executions in the video:

Taliban said the alleged execution of Taliban commanders by alien masked men was a propaganda against the Taliban group.

The group following a statement said a number of spy agents who had infiltrated among the Taliban militants were recognized and executed by Taliban group.

The statement further added that several other infiltrators who are working for spy agencies will be executed in the near future. (Ghanizada, Khaama Press, June 7)

Statements by officials in Nuristan accusing Pakistani military and intelligence services of fomenting insurgency and attacking citizens in Nuristan are not without precedent. Relatedly, accusations by Pakistani journalists and government officials that anti-government insurgent and TTP leader Maulawi Fazlullah had taken refuge in Nuristan had been leveled in years prior. In October 2013, I wrote an article at Foreign Intrigue that addressed the evolving conflictvin Nuristan and neighboring Kunar provinces. In the article, titled “Strange Days,” I assessed that support for insurgent networks by Pakistani and Afghan intelligence services had catalyzed a proxy war with support for groups such as Afghan Taliban originating in Pakistan and Pakistani groups such as TTP garnering assistance from Afghan government agencies. This assessment is burgeoned by recent reports of insurgent groups attacking one another in the eastern districts of Nuristan.

The strategic value of Nuristan for insurgents in both Pakistan and Afghanistan remains high. For international terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, Nuristan represents the perfect confluence of natural concealment and isolation. The reach of ANSF in the districts of Kamdesh and Barg-i-Matal remains short and efforts by ISAF to mitigate the escalating threat of destabilizing insurgent operations from the area have equally fallen short.

According to open source reporting, Al Qaeda’s presence in Nuristan (and in Kunar) has risen proportionally to the withdrawing of ISAF forces and the closure of camps and outposts. While politically unsustainable in the wake of catastrophic attacks such as that in Kamdesh, withdrawal from the region will be interpreted as prologue to rejuvenated efforts by insurgents to unseat the government in Kabul and quite possibly future attacks on U.S. interests both abroad and inside the U.S.

If we are to take the statements of insurgent leaders themselves at face value, Nuristan will remain a central battleground for forces dedicated to the overthrow of the government in Kabul, possibly the one in Islamabad, and ultimately, attacks on the United States conducted by Al Qaeda. As Cavenish concludes in his Time Magazine piece, control of Nuristan is the Taliban’s first step in the effort to destroy the government in Kabul:

Indeed, history is not on NATO’s side. The 1978 uprising by landowners and clerics, which led to civil war, the virtual collapse of the government and ultimately the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, began in eastern Nuristan and spread quickly to Kunar. “Trouble here can break the central government,” said Qari Ziaur Rahman, a regional commander for the Taliban who is also a leader of the Punjab-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, in a 2008 interview. “Whoever has been defeated in Afghanistan, his defeat began from Kunar.”

Whether the Taliban and their allies can pull off a successful assault on Asadabad is questionable, but there seems little doubt they’ll try. For its part, NATO has redeployed troops to the valley linking Waygal with Asadabad in what looks like an attempt to lock the door. (Cavenish, Time Magazine, June 1, 2011)

This article previously published on SOFREP 06.26.2014 by Eric Jones